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Dating Maze #341: Getting Over the Hurdle

August 10, 2011 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

My fiancée doesn't want to spend what I think is necessary quality time. It's starting to freak me out.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I recently became engaged to a woman I've been dating for many months. I'm hoping that we can be a happy couple and raise a family together. But we have a problem that I don't know how to handle, and I hope you can give me some advice.

Both of us are busy professionals. "Anna" handles her work load differently than I handle mine. She needs a lot of time by herself to prepare her lectures and to "recover" from heavy schedules. We are so much apart that some time I have the feeling that I'm being excluded from her life. We live 30 minutes away, but to me it feels as if we’re in a long-distance relationship.

When we're together, Anna is devoted to me, but I don't think we're together often enough. She said she loves me, but I feel as if there’s a gap in our relationship – that I’m here for her but she just “appears” to be there for me.

I am trying to find the strength to bear this situation. I respect Anna and don't want to make demands on her. I would like to have the right attitude and be a good partner. But I feel our relationship isn't balanced. We've spoken about this many times, and yet nothing has changed.

I'm suffering a lot and it's affecting my work and well-being. Is there something going on here that I don't understand?


Dear Brian,

At first glance, your letter describes the struggle of many couples who need to strike a balance between their individual lives and their life as a couple. When someone who is accustomed to packing their life with work, hobbies, activities and friends is in a serious relationship, it is a challenge to figure out how to spend more time with their significant other. They may think it is just a matter of juggling their schedule. Or they may believe that their “couple time” can fit into the same schedule as when they were going on dates once a week.

However, their partner expects – and their relationship requires – a bigger share of their time and attention. If they want the relationship to continue to develop, much less survive, they have to learn to reshuffle their priorities.

How does a busy person know which comes first and which second?

Honoring work commitments, eating, sleeping, errands, exercise, friendships and continuing one's education are all important – but how does a busy person know which comes first and which comes second? The question reminds us of the film about a teacher who filled a large jar with rocks, and asked the students if the jar was full. When they agreed that it was, he proved them wrong, first by adding gravel to the jar, then sand that fit into the spaces, and then pouring water into the jar.

Some students thought that the purpose of the demonstration was to show that no matter how busy their life was, they could always fit in something else. The real message, the teacher explained, was that if you don't put in the big rocks first, there will never be room for them.

Accommodating Differences

That's a message many on the dating scene need to absorb. Once casual dates blossom into a relationship, particularly one of an engaged couple planning to build a life together, we have to make time for each other and then fit the rest of our lives around that. We need sufficient time to do things together, to converse, relax, and share emotional support. We also need some private time for ourselves, to pursue our interests, and connect with old friends.

Some people are able to adapt quickly to this new phase of life, but for many that adaptation is not easy. When we see a couple struggling to sort through competing interests, we often suggest they arrange a few meetings with a couples' counselor, who can help them strike a proper balance.

It sounds to us as though there's more than this to your particular situation. Your fiancée has told you that she needs time to prepare for her lectures and to unwind after a hectic day, and you have a hard time understanding why these take so long and interfere with your time together. It seems that the two of you have different energy levels, and that is another aspect of your relationship that you need to fine tune.

This, too, happens quite often. Think of how many couples you know where one is a night person, and the other a day person. Or one partner is very neat and orderly, and the other more casual about neatness and order. Many couples figure out how to accommodate these differences after a bit of trial and error. It helps if each of them is somewhat flexible and can respect the fact that they have different bio rhythms and organizational skills and needs.

It is unfair to expect that she will fulfill all your needs.

It's also possible that the two of you have different expectations of how much time two engaged (and married) people should spend together. Sometimes as a couple grows close to each other and solidifies their relationship, one of the partners begins to expect that the relationship, as well as the other person, will fulfill all of their needs – for companionship, social life, leisure time, and helping them achieve a sense of fulfillment and happiness. It's important to understand how this is an unfair expectation, and places undue demands on the relationship. While marriage must be the priority, each partner must also see themselves as individuals who have their own interests, careers, friendships and personal needs. One of the biggest challenges of a new relationship is how to balance couple needs and personal needs in a realistic and mutually satisfying way.

This is an issue that you need to address together. You don't want to expect more from your fiancée than you should, but it sounds as if instead of trying to understand her needs and work together to find a solution, perhaps you are over-focusing on Anna and putting unrealistic expectations on her. Or at least more than she is willing to give.

This is another instance in which a couple's therapist may be able to help you express your feelings and process what your partner has to say. And to know that you yourself have been heard. That's a valuable communication skill for every couple, and is the first step to finding a solution you can both be happy with.

Working through Difficulties

We also have suggestions about how you might be able to find more time to be together, even though you live a half hour apart. In addition to the time you set aside to have fun, try spending an evening once a week, just being together while she prepares lectures in the library, or running errands together on Sunday morning. You might also meet at each other's work location once a week and go out to lunch together. Try brainstorming with each other to think of other ideas.

Once you're married, you'll treasure just sitting down to dinner together after work on an ordinary day, or taking a break in the middle to share the moment over a cup of coffee. This isn't much different than that.

We imagine that someone reading this column might think, "This is too much work. Get out of it," or "You love each other… don't worry, this will work itself out." Neither attitude is correct. Most engaged and newly-married couples spend a period of time working out differences like the one you described, and the presence of these differences does not mean the couple is incompatible. It means they're normal.

One last thought: The first year or so of marriage, and often the months of engagement, are a time of transition – learning about each other and making mutual accommodations. The problem isn't that couples have to go through this; the real problem is that nobody tells them that it’s part of the process of growing together as a couple. Unfortunately, many marriages end in divorce because the couple doesn’t realize that working through difficulties – even serious difficulties – is part and parcel of any long-term committed relationship. That’s reason enough to enlist the help of a couple's therapist.

We hope our advice has been helpful, and we wish you the very best.

Rosie & Sherry

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